Unlike physical abuse that rears its ugly head in dramatic outbursts, emotional abuse can be more insidious and elusive. In some cases, neither the aggressor nor the victim are fully aware of what is happening.

There is nothing more detrimental to your confidence and self-esteem than being in an emotionally abusive relationship. The most obvious setting for emotional abuse is in an intimate relationship where a man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. However, various studies show that men and women abuse each other in equal proportions. In fact, emotional abuse can occur in any relationship, between parents and children, in friendships, and with family members.

What is emotional abuse

So what is emotional abuse? It involves a regular pattern of verbal offense, threats, intimidation, and constant criticism, as well as more subtle tactics like intimidation, humiliation, and manipulation. Emotional abuse is used to control and subdue the other person, and most often it occurs because the abuser has childhood hurts and insecurities that they have not dealt with. You didn’t learn healthy coping mechanisms or how to have positive, healthy relationships. Instead, you feel angry, in pain, fear, and powerless.

Male and female abusers tend to have high rates of personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. Although emotional abuse does not always lead to physical abuse, physical abuse is almost always preceded and accompanied by emotional abuse.

The victim of abuse often does not view the abuse as abusive. They develop defense mechanisms of denial and minimization in order to cope with stress. But the long-term effects of emotional abuse can cause severe emotional trauma to the victim, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you’re not sure what constitutes this harmful behavior, here are 30 signs of emotional abuse.

30 signs of emotional abuse in a relationship

1. They humiliate you, demote you, or make fun of you in front of other people.

2. They regularly demean or ignore your opinions, ideas, suggestions, or needs.

3. They use sarcasm or “teasing” to lower you or make you feel bad about yourself.

4. They accuse you of being “too sensitive” in order to deflect their abusive comments.

5. They try to control you and treat you like a child.

6. You are corrected or punished for your behavior.

7. You feel like you need permission to make decisions or go somewhere.

8. They try to control finances and how money is spent.

9. They belittle and belittle your accomplishments, hopes, and dreams.

10. They try to make you feel like they are always right, and you are wrong.

11. They give you disapproving or derogatory looks or body language.

12. They regularly point out your flaws, mistakes or failures.

13. You are accused or blamed for things that you know are not true.

14. They have an inability to laugh at themselves and cannot tolerate being laughed at by others.

15. They are intolerant of any apparent disrespect.

16. They make excuses for their behavior, try to blame others, and have a hard time apologizing.

17. They cross their borders several times and ignore your requests.

18. They blame you for their problems, life difficulties, or unhappiness.

19. They call you names, label you unpleasantly, or make hurtful comments about you.

20. They are emotionally distant or emotionally unavailable most of the time.

21. They resort to pouting to get attention or get what they want.

22. They don’t show you empathy or compassion.

23. They play the victim and try to divert the blame to you instead of taking personal responsibility.

24. They disengage or use negligence or abandonment to punish or scare you.

25. They don’t seem to notice or care about their feelings.

26. They see you as an extension of themselves rather than as an individual.

27. They deny sex as a way to manipulate and control.

28. They share personal information about you with others.

29. They invalidate or deny their emotionally abusive behavior when confronted.

30. They make subtle threats or negative comments with the intent to scare or control.

The first step of the abused is to acknowledge the abuse

The first step for those who are being emotionally abused is to acknowledge that it is happening. If you recognize any of these signs of emotional abuse in your relationship, you need to be honest with yourself so that you can regain power over your own life, stop the abuse, and begin to heal. For those who have been downplayed, denying, and hiding the abuse, this can be a painful and scary first step.

The stress of emotional abuse will eventually catch up with you in the form of illness, emotional trauma, depression, or intense anxiety . You simply cannot allow it to continue, even if it means ending the relationship. A licensed counselor who is trained in abusive relationships can help you navigate the pain and fear of leaving the relationship and work with you to rebuild your self-esteem.

Can an emotional abuser change? It is possible if the abuser deeply desires change and recognizes his patterns of abuse and the damage caused by them. However, learned behaviors and feelings of entitlement and privilege are very difficult to change. Abusers tend to enjoy the power they feel from emotional abuse, and as a result, a very low percentage of abusers can change.

According to Lundy Bancroft, author of the book ” Why Does He Do That: What’s Inside the Angry, Controlling Mind of Men” , here are some of the changes an abuser (whether male or female) has to make to initiate the recuperation:

  • Fully admit to what they have done.
  • Stop making excuses and blaming.
  • Make peace.
  • Accept responsibility and recognize that abuse is a choice.
  • Identify the behavior control patterns they use.
  • Identify the attitudes that drive their abuse.
  • Accept that overcoming abusiveness is a decades-long process – not claiming to be “cured.”
  • Do not demand credit for improvements they have made.
  • Don’t treat advances you’ve made as vouchers to spend on occasional acts of abuse (eg, “I haven’t done anything like this in a long time, so it’s not a big deal).
  • Develop respectful, kind, and supportive behaviors.
  • Carry your weight and share the power.
  • Change the way you respond to anger and complaints from your partner (or former partner).
  • Change the way you act in strong conflicts.
  • Accept the consequences of their actions (including not feeling sorry for themselves about the consequences, and not blaming their partner or children for them).

How to regain your power in the short term

If the emotional abuser in your relationship is not interested in change, and you are not in a position to leave the relationship immediately, here are some strategies for regaining your power and self-esteem in the short term:

Put your own needs first. Stop worrying about protecting the abuser. Take care of yourself and your needs, and let the other person worry about themselves – even when they try to manipulate you and control your behavior.

Set some limits. Tell your abuser that he or she can no longer yell at you, call you by names, be rude to you, etc. If the misbehavior occurs, let them know that you will not tolerate and leave the room or get in the car and drive to a friend’s house.

Don’t get involved. If the abuser tries to fight or win an argument, you don’t join in anger, over explaining yourself, or making excuses to try to calm him or her down. We have to be calm and get away.

Realize that you can’t “fix” them . You cannot make this person change or reason his way in his heart and mind. They are the ones who must want to change and recognize the destructive quality of their behavior and words. You will only feel worse about yourself and the situation because of the repeated “interventions”.

You are not the culprit . If you’ve been ingrained in an abusive relationship for a while, it can be insane. You start to feel that something must be wrong with you since this other person treats you so badly. Begin to recognize that it is not you. This is the first step toward rebuilding your self-esteem.

Seek support. Talk to trusted friends and family or a counselor about what’s going on. Get away from the abusive person as often as possible, and spend time with those who love and support you. This support system will help you feel less alone and isolated, while still dealing with the abuser.

Develop an exit plan. You cannot stay in an emotionally abusive relationship forever. If finances, or children, or some other valid reason is keeping you from leaving now, develop a plan to get out as soon as possible. Start saving money, find a place to live, or plan for a divorce if necessary so you can feel more in control and power.

Emotional abuse is a form of brainwashing that slowly erodes a victim’s sense of self-worth, security, and confidence in themselves and others. In many ways, it is more damaging than physical abuse, as it slowly disintegrates one’s sense of self and worth. It cuts to the core of your essential self, which can create lifelong psychological scars and emotional pain.

Have you suffered from emotional abuse? How have you coped with the situation, and what are you doing to regain your power and self-esteem?

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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